John Knox: Life Story

Chapter 1: Early Life

Knox was born in the town of Haddington in East Lothian, within a couple of years of the Battle of Flodden. His youth was influenced by the profound political and economic difficulties that Scotland suffered following the loss of James IV, and many of his nobles, in the battle.

The son of a reasonably prosperous merchant, Knox had the benefit of education. His first school was that of the Church of St Mary, Haddington, where he learnt to read and write, and where the daily round of study was punctuated by the clergy, who chanted the regular masses and other services.

Once old enough, Knox progressed to the town’s Grammar school, where he studied Latin in great depth before entering the University of St Andrew’s, sometime in the early 1530s. The district of St Andrew’s had been a place of refuge for early English reformers, known as Lollards, who had followed John Wycliff, and had produced a number of martyrs over the years. However, at this stage, Knox does not seem to have been particularly interested in doctrinal reform.

One of Knox’s most influential tutors was John Mair, who, as well as advocating the power of General Councils over that of the Pope, was an early writer in the Scots language and also had radical ideas about the need for rulers to have the consent of the governed. As part of the usual undergraduate curriculum, Knox studied the rhetoric for which he was afterward so famed, and canon law, to enable him to maintain a suitable profession.

Although the Reformation was gaining ground in Europe, and, to the south, Henry VIII had cast off the authority of the Pope (although not Catholic doctrine), Scotland, under James V, was still firmly Catholic. The Church was the main route for public office, and Knox was ordained as a Catholic priest at Easter 1536. Knox’ early career was as a Notary Public. A notary drew up deeds and documents, witnessed signatures, taking oaths and so forth.

Having had some respite from faction fighting once James V attained his majority in 1528, Scotland’s political situation deteriorated again in 1542. Years of rumbling hostility with England erupted into war. The Scots, after a major victory at Haddon Rigg, were heavily defeated at the Battle of Solway Moss in November 1542. Within a few weeks, the king was dead, leaving a week-old-daughter, Mary, as his heir.

The Scots nobles were divided between those, led by the Earl of Arran, appointed Governor, who favoured an alliance with England, and those led by Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews, who favoured the Auld Alliance with France. There was also the Dowager Queen, Marie of Guise, who was pro-French, but anti-Beaton.

The English were determined to subjugate their northern neighbours, and in the War of the Rough Wooing, Knox’ home territory of East Lothian was the main theatre for the endless raids, burnings and battles that racked the country for over seven years.

Governor Arran, as well as initially favouring an English alliance, was also sympathetic to ecclesiastical reform. He sponsored the promulgation of the new doctrines, by allowing priests and friars who were moving from their Catholic training to a new understanding of religion, to preach. Arran also permitted, for the first time, the reading of the Bible in a language other than Latin or Greek.

As there had already been a project south of the border to translate and disseminate the Bible in English (the Great Bible of 1539, translated under the supervision of Miles Coverdale). English was understandable by Lowland Scots, although, of course, completely unintelligible to the Gaelic speaking Highlanders.

This policy of mild reform was overturned when Arran’s half-brother, James Hamilton, Abbot of Paisley, persuaded Arran to draw back, and to reconcile with Cardinal Beaton. For Knox, who had heard the former Dominican friars, Thomas Gillem, and John Rough, preaching the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, the central tenet of Luther’s teaching, there was no turning back.

Whilst espousing this doctrine in the 1520s or 1530s did not necessarily mean alienation from the Catholic Church (there were plenty of respected churchmen who leant towards the doctrine), by the 1540s, positions were becoming polarised.

Knox now ceased practising as either a notary (which was a clerical office) and as a priest. But he was not without friends with similar evangelical beliefs, and was appointed as tutor in the household of Hew Douglas of Longniddry. Knox was thus introduced to the Douglas connection – including Sir George Douglas of Pittendreich. Sir George was the brother of Archibald, Earl of Angus, who was also the brother-in-law of Henry VIII, and he and his brother had been promoting the English alliance, and religious reform, for many years.